During a bloody battle for control of Mosul — the last stronghold of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq — militants burned down a chemical plant that spewed choking, corrosive gases across the Middle East.
One of two images released by NASA this week, the first taken on October 22 by its Aqua satellite, shows a giant plume of light-coloured smoke billowing from a sulphur fire.
It comes from the Al-Mishraq sulphur mine and processing facility, which is located about 24 miles south of Mosul — right where a US-led coalition of Iraqi and Kurdish forces are trying to advance toward Mosul as they take back villages and towns.
The grey-white smoke comes from the sulphur plant, while the black smoke from oil fires lit by militants months ago in a town called Qayara:
Burning sulphur is not something you want to breathe in, let alone even touch your skin — or your community.
When set on fire, sulphur combines with oxygen to form sulphur dioxide: a colorless, pungent gas that is very toxic, corrosive, and sometimes fatal, according to the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS).
“A severe, short-term exposure may cause long-term respiratory effects,” states the CCOHS website.
The reason is that when sulphur dioxide meets water, it instantly dissolves to form sulfuric acid — in throats, on wet skin, in damp soil, and more.
“People in the area affected by the smoke said it was difficult to breathe, burned their eyes and stung their noses and throats when they inhaled it, and burned any exposed wet skin as the cloud intermittently blew over the area depending on winds,” wrote journalists Ben Kisling and Gordon Lubold in an October 23 story for the Wall Street Journal, about a day after ISIS lit the fire.
NASA says the sulfurous blaze is visible from space only because it contains other unpleasant sulphur-based chemicals that reflect light.
But a second satellite image, taken on October 24, reveals just how far the invisible cloud of sulphur dioxide spread beyond Iraq to other countries, including Syria and Turkey:
The darker and redder the overlay shown in this image, taken by NASA’s Aura satellite, the more dense the cloud was at the time.
Although the Wall Street Journal reports that the sulphur fire was put out, the amount of toxic smoke released by the blaze might inflict lasting damage on the region and its people.
When sulphur dioxide gets into soil by merging with water, it can persist for years and leach out minerals and compromise agriculture, as well as harming any aquatic life nearby.
And long after adults and kids breathe in heavy concentrations of sulphur dioxide, according to the Centres for Diseases Control, they can develop wheezing fits and other respiratory problems.
The international coalition that is fighting ISIS hopes to secure villages surrounding Mosul and reach the city’s center as soon as possible.
But in addition to noxious fumes, soldiers face roadside bombs, networks of hidden tunnels, suicide bombers, civilians being used as human shields, and other grave threats.
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